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Pilgrims and Poetry

Posted By Connie Moody, Thursday, November 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, November 4, 2013

Thanksgiving is our American tradition of thanking God for His mercies and blessings.  Our Pilgrim Fathers began the tradition with a joyous harvest celebration to recognize the Hand of Providence in overcoming hardships and supplying all their needs.  Many Americans (it should be all Americans) are familiar with William Bradford, governor and historian of the Plymouth colony and his history Of Plimouth Plantation, "but very few know that he is one of the most prolific American poets of the seventeenth-century…."[1]  Add to your Thanksgiving studies and readings the poetry of William Bradford.  Be inspired to try your hand at retelling His-story through poetry and leave your contribution to the legacy of American liberty in verse.


     "[A]s New England gradually changed from a savage wilderness to a prosperous settlement Bradford felt more and more alone in his struggle to preserve the separatist principles that brought the Pilgrims to the new land. Many were moving away from Plymouth to become wealthy trade merchants in Boston or hungrily buying up land away from the colony. Bradford finally gave up his writing Of Plimouth Plantation in despair of a lost vision. He pursued instead the writing of poetry for the purpose of helping the separatists and puritans to remember their heritage, to warn them of worldliness and heretical groups that were trying to lead them astray and to encourage them to return to their ‘first love’—the dream and vision of building a community completely upon the principles of God’s Word and separation from the world.

     "Bradford was like a spiritual father to the Pilgrims. His fatherly love could not bear to see his ‘children’ seemingly set on destroying themselves by turning away from the truths they once held so dear. His poems, then, reflected a different dimension of Bradford than his prose. He was no longer just an historian, but a heart-broken pastor or shepherd seeing to save the lost sheep of his fold…

     "[Bradford] felt a sense of great hurt that Plymouth was pushed into the background. Plymouth was more than just a colony to the Pilgrims. It was a noble experiment and a symbol of faith, truth and liberty. They thought that if Plymouth failed, it would appear that their ideals had failed too. It was a spiritual battle between good and evil, God and Satan, and to let Plymouth fall would be to admit defeat…

     "In order to help the people to see how far they had really deviated from the beginning, Bradford wrote his lengthy poem, ‘Some Observations.’ It gave an account of New England’s history from its first encounter with the Indians in 1620, through the different stages of spiritual decline up to 1654. In this poem he tried to contrast the early years of God’s merciful providence and blessing with the later years of backsliding and carnality….

      "The poetry of William Bradford may be thought of by some as mere mechanical versification, instead of genuine poetry. Versification was very common during the early years of America as a means of recording historical events, illustrating sermons and teaching morals to children. It was true that Bradford himself called his own poetry merely ‘useful verse,’ meant to teach more than inspire. Yet his verse went beyond just arranging words in a certain meter or ending the lines with rhyme. Bradford used a variety of poetic tools to express his ideas, including metaphor, simile, alliteration, personification, apostrophe and pun. He used twenty-two poetic tools in all, and some very effectively…

      "The fact that Bradford’s poetry was virtually ignored for more than three-hundred years was probably based on the conclusion that his verse did not compare to the greater poets of his day or ours. This conclusion, whether true or not, was very unfortunate, for his poetry not only gave us a better look at Bradford the man, but also a more complete record of the Pilgrims, valuable historical background on the events in Europe which led to the separatist movement and an informative description of the various religious groups during Bradford’s time, both in Europe and America….”[2]

      Below is the second section of Bradford’s poem titled, Some Observations of Gods mercifull dealing with us in this wilderness, and his gracious protection over us these many years. Blessed be his name. In this segment of the longer poem Bradford rehearses the providence and mercy of God in the midst of great tribulation especially in the early years of the Colony. In this poem of heroic couplets, Bradford testifies of the Pilgrim faith in God and trusting His wisdom in allowing the trials of life believing that God intends good to come from the hardships and His purposes to be accomplished. Whether in poetry or prose, songs or psalms, God’s command to remember and retell remain a sustaining encouragement for the generations and help to overcome in the struggle of materialism versus spirituality.

II. The Founding of Plymouth

When we came first, we were in number small,
Not much above a hundred, in all;
And in a number, we did here arrive,
And, by God's mercy, were all brought alive.
But when we came, here was no house nor town,
Nor certain place we knew, where to sit down,
Nor any friends, of whom we could expect
Us for to help, or any way direct.
Some forth were sent, to seek a place fitting,
Where we might harbor, and make our dwelling.
But in a place, where one cold night they lay,
They were assaulted, about break of day,
By these Indians, with great clamor loud,
Whose arrows fell, like to a dropping cloud.
Yet none were hurt, though some had clothes shot through;
But them repelled, from this their rendezvous,
And, with their musket, made them fly and run;
So that long after none at us would come.
But now sharp winter storms came us upon,
So here we made our habitation;
And till such time as we could houses get,
We were exposed to much cold and wet,
With such disease as our distempers bred;
So that within the space of three months' tide,
The full half of our weak company died;
And the condition of the rest was sad,
But the Lord compassion on them had,
And them again to health and strength restored,
And cheered them up; with courage as before,
And hath enabled them for to go on,
And, with comfort, the work to lead along.
And many of them still there be,
And some their children's children married see.
Famine once we had, wanting corn and bread;
But other things God gave us in the stead,
As fish and ground-nuts, to supply our meat,
That we might learn on providence to wait,
And know, by bread man lives not in his need,
But by each word that doth from God proceed.
But a while after, plenty did come in,
From His hand only, who doth pardon sin;
And all did flourish, like the pleasant green,
Which, in the joyful spring, is to be seen.[3]

[1] Tim Paulsen, preface to The Poetry of William Bradford.

[2] Paulsen, introduction.

[3] Poet: William Bradford - All poems of William Bradford. Accessed November 4, 2013 at


Paulsen, Tim, ed. The Poetry of William Bradford (Manuscript). Arcata, CA: Humboldt State University, 1981.


For a deeper understanding take the online course Mastering Providential History: The Pilgrim Study.

Tags:  Pilgrims  poetry  Thanksgiving  William Bradford 

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